The authors of a new study say reports of religion’s decline in America have been exaggerated. But what if the study instead says we’re in a post-Christian age?
I read a recent study where the authors claim Americans are becoming more religious, not less, and that religious institutions are thriving, not declining. They base this on responses where many individuals who report no religious affiliation or check “none” on surveys display a wide variety of religious practices. This includes atheists and agnostics.
It also includes Christians. They’re mostly evangelicals in new churches, small churches, or megachurches. When they don’t see their faith or denomination listed, they check off the only remaining option, “none of the above,” even though they have many religious practices.
Finally, “None of the above” also includes members of the burgeoning Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities throughout the US. The authors say when we total these groups, we see Americans are becoming more religious and religious institutions are thriving.
Depends on we how define “religion.” The term comes from the Middle Ages, when the church shaped European culture. Religion originally meant “to rebind.” Re = “back to the original place,” ligio = “to bind” (ligio is where we get our word ligament, which binds bone to bone). The church drew this definition of religion from Jewish tradition where the most common verb is “teshuva,” “to return to the original place.” Religion is rituals rebinding our ways to God’s ways, returning to them for we are all like sheep, easily led astray.
This isn’t the survey’s definition of religion. It’s “constantly evolving” the authors say. I recognize the meaning of words can evolve, but not all words. The true meaning of the word God doesn’t evolve. But the definition of religion apparently has. And I think that’s evidence of our living in a post-Christian age.
Here’s what I mean. In the eighteenth century, the meaning of the word original shifted. Before, it was related to origin and described something that returned us to the original place. Since the eighteenth century, “original” has come to mean fresh and new, having no relation to the origin or to anything between the origin and the present moment. This semantic shift was part of a paradigm shift in Western cultures. They were shifting away from the Middle Ages, toward a post-Christian age.
C.S. Lewis felt this formed a “Great Divide” between the old western world (the Middle Ages) and the new western world, the present moment. In the Middle Ages, the church defined religion as returning, rebinding. It was good. In the new western world, many Christians are “committed to novelty, to spontaneity, to the now,” writes Peter Leithart. The fresh and new. Ritual, with its atmosphere of ancient authority and its (apparently) bland repetitions, is out of step, he adds. Most Christians “would rather die than do it over again.” We hear this in the popular saying, “I’m into a relationship with God, not religion.”
Which is exactly what Philip Rieff predicted in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. He described an emergent culture where “a wider range of people will have ‘spiritual’ concerns and engage in ‘spiritual’ pursuits.” This will be seen in new churches where “people will continue to genuflect and read the Bible,” but no prophet will denounce how this is not original religion for it is not a return to historic Christianity. These churches will consist, rather, in a consumerist desire to pick and choose one’s own spirituality through broad experimentation (i.e., church-shopping).
My sense is these are the Christians who check off “none of the above” when taking religious surveys. Protestant? Catholic? Orthodox? Nope. None of the above. That leaves us with traditions, mostly evangelical, that began on this side of Lewis’ Great Divide. That’s important as Lewis felt this new Western world terminates in a post-Christian age. I’m not saying these Christians are post-Christian. I’m saying they seem to be impacted by post-Christian views of religion. For me, the study indicates we’re in a post-Christian age.
This would mean reports of religion’s decline are not exaggerated. Original religion is declining. The church’s definition of religion—rituals rebinding us to the original—has been eclipsed by a negative view of religion. It’s either bad (bland rituals) or good (picking and choosing one’s own spirituality). That’s how a post-Christian age defines religion.
It all depends on how we define “religion.”
I close with two comments.
I recognize some will feel this is much ado about nothing. Many are Christians who are upset about how the definition of marriage is evolving. Or gender categories are evolving. It’s a little inconsistent to feel one’s own evolving view of religion is nothing while feeling upset when others adopt an evolving view of marriage and gender. Can’t have it both ways.
Second, the sons of Issachar are lauded for understanding the times in which they lived. This enabled them to know what to do. My sense is few American Christians understand we’re in a post-Christian age. They don’t know what to do. C.S. Lewis did. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”
The right road returns us to the old western world, to original religion that recognized we live in an enchanted world embodied in sacraments, rituals, creeds, candles, catechisms, and so on. It’s the enchanted world that Lewis sought to reenchant in our dis-enchanted age. I’d urge modern Christians to return to these pre-eighteenth century religious traditions.
 Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003).
 C.S. Lewis, God in The Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970).